Close your eyes for a moment–when you think of Ridgewood houses, what do you see? According to the expert appraiser appointed by neighbors opposed to a modern subdivision around Walthery, it should be a Victorian home built around 1890.
"The age of McMansions is over," Joseph Medici said in response to testimony put forth by experts from developer Robert Jennee, who and erect two modern 3,200-plus square feet homes in its place.
What is character?
"This would be perfectly at home in Hawthorne, Wyckoff, Haledon . . ." Medici said. "Not in Ridgewood." He continued, "You must maintain the character of Ridgewood."
Central to the issue is what qualifies as a benefit to the neighborhood. Is it knocking down a building that's been in non-conformity to zoning regulations?, asked David Troast, the planner hired by Jennee.
Under a barrage of sharp questions from objector's attorney Harold Cook, Troast again maintained that knocking down what he called an "out-of-place" large home with two lots would be a better alternative than one monstrous house, something one neighbor took as a threat; there are no plans to knock down the exiting 3,170 square foot home and erect a 5,000 square foot behemoth but it would be permitted given the size of the overall lot.
Troast conceded, however, that there was once consideration to put three smaller houses on the half-acre lot. Neighbors visibly smirked–it's their contention two homes with minimal acreage is already a detriment. "Three?" one resident in the audience said in a murmur. In fact, neighbors contend, Jennee is trying to put over 6,000 square feet on the same lot–about 3,000 feet more than what's already there.
The surrounding homes in the area–mostly smaller Victorians or Colonials–have greater similarities to the original home than the modern, two story homes proposed, according to Medici and objector's real estate expert Francis X. Spizziri.
They're also significantly smaller in living area, which the objectors contend is the most important way to judge how a home fits within the context of the neighborhood although Troast balked at that notion.
Even if Jennee's design were amended to more closely resemble what the objector's contend is "Ridgewood character," the size of the proposed two homes "is an issue," according to Medici – they're double the living area than many neighboring homes, Medici said.
He testified in his opinion the two proposed homes would be assessed at a total of anywhere from $1.6 to $2.0 million, about double the current appraisal.
'Out of order exchange'
Salty words were exchanged between Troast and Cook with testimony masquerading as questions and snippy, sarcastic non-answers shot-put back at Cook. Eventually, Planning Board Attorney Gail Price snapped that things had "gotten out of hand" and both parties were being "disrespectful."
Later in the meeting, Chairman David Nicholson screamed after applicant's attorney Charles Collins and Medici battled back and forth beneath the low hum of gasps from as a small pocket of interested village residents and neighbors.
Though tension shook throughout the two-and-a-half hour meeting, things calmed and Troast and Cook finished the contentious cross examination. Cook unloaded a continuing point: how could taking an existing lot (25,000 square feet), dividing it in half, ripping down a piece of history and watching two "un-Ridgewood-like" large cookie-cutters in its place a benefit to the neighborhood?
Troast responded that about half of the other homes in the area (within 500 feet) were also not in compliance with what would now be zoning code, admitting that many of the non-conformities likely predated zoning ordinances. However, he said the proposed lot coverage was comparable to others in the surrounding area, as is building height and building coverage. Those are the important points, he said. In short, it's in proportion to what's there under those guidelines.
What if the planning board says no?
But, asked Planning Board Vice Chairman Albert Pucciarelli, "What if we say no [to the application] to this and the house continues to be in . . . I wouldn't say blighted condition but in a degraded condition, for the next 5, 7, 10 years?"
"People renovate these [older homes]. It comes down to price," Medici retorted, adding that it's possible Jennee or another prospective owner could leave it to degrade further and there are "no guarantees" the property is improved.
Pucciarelli also commented that in reality, few homes in Ridgewood are truly as old and architecturally significant as may have been presented, as most have been renovated over the years or moved entirely and are "imitations" of previous homes. In reality, he said, "very few houses in Ridgewood can claim true architectural veracity."
A home with history, a land use law apparently against subdivisions
Medici gave a Powerpoint presentation in which he contended there was inherent value in the formerly Barbara Lewis-owned home, which was the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera House for decades, one of artsy Ridgewood's theater treasures with rare features like chestnut wood, now extinct in North America.
He testified that at different parts during the 78-day listing period, the home was marketed as a fixer-upper but not a tear-down.
The appraiser concluded that renovating the property is the best course of action–something previous testimony said wasn't an option given the prohibitive cost although the home sold at half its appraised value at $385,000. He also read from Municipal Land Use Law code in which there are specific passages discouraging the knocking down of homes for subdivisions.
Troast has testified that there's "nothing unreasonable" about asking to take down a home "not in rhythm" with the neighborhood and replacing it with homes in better condition with proportionate area and building coverage. He said the benefits of new non-conformities in variances would outweigh the previous ones.
Members of the planning board independently remarked that at the end of the day, they'll be judging the application solely on the variances it seeks and not external factors like renovation possibilities.
The application will continue in April with Cook's final witness.